Georgia State Study Challenges Assumptions About Religion’s Effect on Street Criminals

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Serious criminals co-opt religious doctrine to permit, and even encourage, their illicit activity, a Georgia State University study shows.

Serious criminals co-opt religious doctrine to permit, and even encourage, their illicit activity, a Georgia State University study shows.

Titled “With God on my side: The paradoxical relationship between religious belief and criminality among hardcore street offenders,” the research was co-authored by Georgia State criminologists Volkan Topalli, Timothy Brezina and graduate student Mindy Bernhardt. It was published in the journal Theoretical Criminology. Their findings have policy implications for correctional faith-based reforms.

“Offenders in our study overwhelmingly professed a belief in God and identified themselves with a particular religion, but they also regularly engaged in serious crimes,” said Topalli, an associate professor in Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “Our data suggest that religious belief may even produce or tend to produce crime or criminality among our sample of hardcore street offenders who actively reference religious doctrine to justify past and future offenses.”

The authors interviewed 48 active, hardcore street offenders, each with four or more serious offenses, such as drug dealing, robbery, carjacking and burglary. They were not incarcerated when interviewed.

After establishing the offenders’ beliefs about death and faith, the authors juxtaposed their offenses with their purported religiousness. They found that the religious beliefs of many offenders were incomplete. Often their beliefs were selective. Although aware of religious doctrine, these offenders would manipulate or selectively attend to certain precepts that would seem to accommodate their self-serving desire to offend.

Although many offenders had significant exposure to religious institutions as children, they held beliefs that were technically accurate but paradoxical to the mainstream approved intent of religion. Some offenders, such as 44-year-old male robber “Miami,” were so bold as to attempt to ‘game the system’:

“I think God is forgiving ‘cause you know, what I learned from going to church, as long as I be able to ask for forgiveness before I die, I’m going to heaven, but if somebody shoot me and I don’t get no chance to pray, you know, I’m going to hell. So, I came up with this great idea that hey, I ask God in advance if I don’t get a chance to pray, to forgive me you know for what I’ve done, and then I feel like God knows in my heart that I don’t like what I’m doing but that’s the only thing I know to do.”

The authors note their results do not indicate these effects accrue from the content of religious doctrine. However, it is important to consider their policy implications.

“The growing correctional reform of faith-based programs encourages inmates’ participation in prayer, Bible studies and religious services,” Topalli said. “To the extent that some offenders misinterpret or distort religious teachings to justify and excuse crime, program facilitators may benefit from this knowledge and work to challenge or correct these errors.”

For more about the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, visit

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Jennifer Giarratano
Georgia State University
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